Empathy is Everywhere and Nowhere at the Same Time: A Conversation with Dr. Adrienne Boissy
Note: This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
EOL: Adrienne, talk with us about empathy and why it’s important in the work you do.
Dr. Adrienne Boissy: Perhaps we are all survivors of brokenness. I’ve picked those pieces up, as we all do, and while I can’t say they form a beautiful shape, they've enabled me to become something different, someone different. I’m fascinated by human behavior, intent, and how these experiences shape all of us and our lens of the world. There are many people passionate about suffering because they’ve seen it themselves. My wish is that we don’t have to suffer to have the capacity to ease it.
I think someone thrives because people care and make them feel known.
I care primarily for multiple sclerosis patients—they're the people who've taught me the most. I have a patient who recently found out he may die from a side effect of medication, on the same day his son was murdered. I had a patient who frustrated my colleagues because she was asking for narcotics, but when I sat down at the bedside and we had our first discussion, I learned she’d set herself on fire after being raped.
I think someone thrives because people care and make them feel known. I’ve tried to do that in my clinical practice and some people have done that for me.
EOL: It's clear that empathy is a driver in your work. How does empathy translate in a massive institution like the Cleveland Clinic?
Dr. Boissy: In medicine, empathy is probably everywhere and nowhere at the same time. We’ve got amazing people who came here to heal others. That’s their passion, that’s why they’re there. They're empathy amplifiers, here to lift and heal others every single day.
We also have processes that feel very broken for patients. We have opaque billing, the abyss of waiting rooms, and language that's so foreign people can’t understand what we’re talking about. Our patients deserve more. One of our biggest challenges and questions is: how do we design systems that care more.
How can we not be in the business of healthcare, but in the business of caring for human beings? Those are different businesses.
I want us to be organizations that don’t lay off our caregivers during COVID. I want us to be organizations that use the patients’ names when we talk about our mistakes. I want us to be organizations that provide food for the families of our caregivers who went to Detroit and New York to help during the pandemic. Those are things that feel worth fighting for.
EOL: What is the path forward?
Dr. Boissy: Our biggest call to action is around making sure our own people feel cared for, so they can keep healing others. Attending to their suffering as a means of amplifying their empathy. It’s pretty tough out there right now. There’s so much beautiful work to do to honor the messy, broken imperfectness that is humanity, and this is the work I want to spend my life doing.